Confession time: I’m a big nerd
No, it’s not true.
I know, I know, it’s hard to believe, but this cool writer persona is nothing but a façade.
I’m bringing this up because what I want to talk about comes through one of my hobbies, roleplaying games. I was hooked on roleplaying games in high school with Advanced Dungeons and Dragons second edition, and I continue to game today (I’ve recently fell in love with Fate Core). It might come to no surprise to you that I’m, like 98% of the time, the Game Master of these games (the one who makes the story the players play in). As a result, I’m the one that knows/understands all the rules and I’m the one that helps everyone make their characters (the personas/people they’re going to be in the game).
It’s the character creation aspect of gaming that I want to talk about today. (This might sound like an intro to roleplaying games, but stick with it and I’ll bring it back around to writing. Promise.) So, creating a character can be as serious or as whimsical as you’d like it to be. For instance, in the current game I’m running, one of my friends got the idea to be an eighties’ business man that got turned into a vampire, but is inexplicably stuck in eighties. Another one of my friends ended up being a mermaid stripper. As you can see, things can get pretty out there if you let them.
What’s this got to do with writing? You might be saying. Give me a minute, I haven’t got there quite yet.
That’s two of my friends (the vampire and the mermaid), but I have to talk to you about my third friend (for privacy sake we’ll call him Dudley). Dudley came in, all serious like, and had a pretty solid idea for his character, came up with a good backstory for him, but as play began quickly became frustrated with things. Why wasn’t his character working the way he thought it should? Why was he having such a hard time doing what he wanted? His character is awesome, why is everything so difficult?
Let’s jump back to my vampire and mermaid friends. When we all sat down to make characters, my two friends were instantly struck with the ideas for a vampire and a mermaid. They were equally struck with the ideas that the vampire should be mentally stuck in the time period he loved the best—the eighties—and that the mermaid was fascinated by humans and ashamed of her mermaid heritage. Everyone thought this was funny, or a good reason to have a mermaid on land, and so they went with the ideas. As the game progressed they jumped into their characters’ traits and fun was had by all.
Now let’s talk about Dudley. Dudley made a character backstory that came out to make him a doofus. First, he learned about the magical in the world by being attacked by a magical being. Then he gave himself an “evil imaginary self,” which is a dual personality disorder (indicating that the trauma of the attack was too much for his weak mind to bear). Then it turns out that because he survived the initial attack by the magical thing, the magical thing has taken a liking to him and keeps coming back to play with him. On top of that, the vampire character has taken advantage of him twice in the backstory, one time causing a magical backlash onto Dudley’s character giving him a “false aura of power.”
All this adds up to, doofus.
However, as that fateful first gaming session commenced, and I, as an attentive and mischievous game master, began poking at Dudley’s character he got increasingly frustrated. Again, his character is awesome, why is everything so hard. Needless to say, Dudley went home a bit miffed about the whole thing (not the intended outcome of playing a game with your friends).
Everything’s okay now. We talked about his character, I told him my take on things, and he’d already thought about it and agreed that he should embrace the doofiness of his character. (To be fair, I did offer to help him make a new badass character).
Yeah, whatever. This still isn’t about writing.
Okay, okay. I promised to bring it back to writing, and we’re here now.
What happened with Dudley and his roleplaying character is a common problem that writers have. They have a cool character concept, but when it comes to putting the character on paper they struggle. This isn’t so much a ‘how do they fit into the story’ in a grand sense, but in a much smaller sense. In a scene by scene sense, a ‘why is this character in this scene’ sense. It’s a meshing of your concept for the character concept and their role in the story.
To bring Dudley’s character back up: His concept for the character was a badass wizard, when the execution of his character creation made him the comic relief of the group.
It is very important for you, as a writer, to line up character concepts with character motivation and character roles in your story. If you don’t it can be a shoe horning effort to find a place for your character in your story.
Alright, let me give you a literary example of what I’m talking about, just so you don’t think I’m talking out my ass. What am I going to use to prove this? Twilight by Stephanie Meyer.
Stop the eye rolling! I can hear you rolling your eyes, you know. The Internet is a magical place, it allows me to do that.
Are you done?
Okay. Bear with me, and I’ll walk you through the steps here.
So, we’re going to be comparing Twilight to Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Let’s get the perfunctory disclaimers out of the way first. I love Dracula, the movie with Gary Oldman and Wynona Ryder. If you haven’t seen it and you like vampire movies I highly recommend it. I also acknowledge that Bram Stoker’s work is a classic and pivotal to the Gothic tradition. This is not me telling you that it’s not an important part of literature, or that you shouldn’t like it. This is me holding it up as an example of shoe horning.
So, we’re going to comparing Twilight to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. We’re doing this because they are basically the same story: immortal creature of darkness finds his one true love and struggles to be with her because of his dark, immortal nature. They also have the same character concept in Edward and Dracula, immortal, strong, fast, predatory.
What we’re going to do is start with a scene and walk backwards through the story to find how the character fits into the story.
Let’s start with Dracula first. Remember: Dracula=immortal creature of darkness.
Here’s the scene: Dracula has found Mina in London and has just bitten her to turn her into an immortal creature of darkness to they can be immortal creatures of darkness together. Bwahahahahaha!
So…we know Mina is in London because she lives there. Dracula, though, why’s he there? Better yet, how’d he find Mina in London, I hear it’s a fairly large city and fairly congested. And Dracula has been chilling in Transylvania for the past six, seven, eight centuries. Well, it helps that, 1) one of the people from London, like the second person, Dracula knows is insane, and just so happens to be in an insane asylum run by the doctor, that’s courting one of Mina’s friends, who, coincidently, Dracula has fed upon and turned into a vampire earlier in the book. Because London only has about fifteen people in it, according to Bram Stoker’s viewpoint. Oh, and 2) the other person Dracula knows in London is a reality lawyer who just so happens to be Mina’s fiancé and had a picture with him so Dracula could see it. Going back to the first question, why is Dracula in London? Why, diversification of course. I’m immortal, and the sole ruler of an entire country, with all of Europe at my fingertips, but I want to own half a dozen rundown houses in London.
Have you spotted the shoe horning yet? It would seem Bram Stoker had a great character concept, immortal creature of darkness, was once a man who lost the love of his life, and damned himself to find her. And he does find her! I just feel like it took a lot of shoe horning him into the story Mr. Stoker wanted.
Now let’s look at Twilight. Remember: Edward=immortal creature of darkness.
Here’s the scene: A car has just lost control in a high school parking lot. Edward jumps between Bella, the love of his life now, and the truck, stopping it with his immortal creature of darkness strength.
So…why is Edward there? Edward, is in Forks because it has horrendous cloud cover that allows him and his family of vampires to walk around in the day (quiet you! I know the reason why and we’re not here to talk about that!). Yes, okay, but why is Edward in high school, being that he’s 150 years old? Well, even though he’s 150 years old, he still looks seventeen, in order to keep up appearances and lead semi-normal lives, he and his “siblings” attend high school. They’re still the creepy kids in the school, but it’s better than being the creepy kids that live in that house waaay out in woods and never come into town except when they want to show off how cool they are.
See how easily Edward fits into the scene? There’s no magical coincidences about Edward knowing half of Bella’s family before he even meets her.
Character concept meets character role seamlessly. Say what you will about the actual writing or the story, but Mrs. Meyer’s planning of the story is spot on.
So, if you’re having trouble finding a reason your character is in a scene or the story at all, maybe you re-evaluate the concept you have of the character and the role they’re playing in the story.
Until next time: Be yourself, be well. Write yourself, write well.
PS: this is the last update before I post A Dinner for Crows. It’s finished. Yay! I just need to edit it a bit and then I’ll be putting it up. I know it’s been a long time coming. It’s almost as if it’s hard to write a novel that’s any good.